At Large with Liberty

The shadow of a figure in simple-cut huntsman's garb cast itself along the shimmering emerald of the forest ferns. It moved swiftly between the trees, like the deer, with the agility of a boy and the lightness of a girl. Yes, in spite of the attire, the spirit of the place seemed to know a woman's soul had come to seek out the secrets of its depths.

When she came to a grove of oaks, she paused, pulled the hunting horn from her belt, and blew into it with all her might, letting the echo resound through the morning mist like a clarion call. As the last note died away, several seconds of silence past. Then seemingly from out of nowhere, an arrow flew and stuck into a tree to her right. She whirled around.

"Is that how you face off a FitzWalter lass, shooting from the bushes at her, eh? How manly, Robin-of-the-hood!"

The archer poked his head out from the shrubbery, and his merry blue eyes were dancing in time to the grin sparkling across his face. "…of the hood?"

"That's what they're calling you, after your glorious stunt at the festival, risking life and limb for a golden arrow a maiden kiss." She crossed her arms. "Use it, why don't you? Christian name and outlaw name, side-by-side. Fits your paradoxical self to a tee."

"As you wish," he conceded, coming out from the brush and going over to her. He smiled, almost shyly. "You look…good, Marian."

"No, you don't!" she shot back. "Don't give me that 'looking good' nonsense, as if we don't know each other from Adam, for a mere two years in Londontown! I'll not stand for it!"

"Fine, I'll try again." He pretended to scowl. "You look…ghastly, Marian…almost as if they managed to make a lady out of you or something out there, no matter how hard you try to hide it under your current scandalous garb…"

Now she kicked him lightly in the shins, and he made as if it were a much harder hit than it was, and they both found themselves wrestling like 10 year olds in a nearby pile of leaves. She soon had him pinned down, begging for mercy. "Alright, alright, I surrender!" he yelped, throwing up his hands dramatically, as she tossed a final handful of leaves in his direction.

"Are you sorry?" she demanded, crossing her arms.

"Surely…shall I don sackcloth and ashes to convince you?"

A slow smile spread across her face. "Oh, bother. Don't go to such lengths." She started picking bits of leaf out of his golden-brown hair. "Still the Locksley curls, I see," she noted his family trademark.

"And still the FitzWalter temper, I see!" he remarked. "The Lionheart would have done himself a favor to conscript you into his ranks. Saladin and the whole Saracen host would shrink in terror at your approach, especially armor clad, swinging a battle-axe! The stuff of nightmares, I say!"

"Ha, ha," she snorted. "It's more fun to use it on know-it-all Saxons."

"For shame, m'lady," he feigned insult. "You should have been born in time for the Conquest! All that hot Norman blood just boiling inside you, without any proper direction…"

"Oh, I found my direction alright," she decided, and glanced around her at the trees of Sherwood.

He smiled gently. "I had a feeling they'd call you back."

"Ever talk to trees, my young lord?"

"But of course," he replied, waving his hand broadly. "I am their prince, and they are the nobles of my hall, ever stalwart, ever true!"

She giggled, then brushed her thumb across his cheek. "Still shaving, even out here," she commented. "You impress me. I was expecting you to have turned into a haggard wild man with whiskers down to the ground."

"Ah, well," he shrugged. "Why hide such facial splendor from the masses, what?"

She punched him in the shoulder. "Narcissist."

"Hey, at least I'm not taking beauty baths for my complexion, like some London ladies do."

"And you could use one, too," she decided. "There is a pool out here under the falls, you know, and I might just decide to make you a grand coming home present of some soap…nice, French, scented soap…"

"Oh, God almighty…I'm not going to be smelling like a girl, you hear?"

"Not like a girl!" she protested. "Like…a flower."

"Well, thank you for clarifying."

"A nice, Norman flower…"

"Alright, this is your last invitation out here!"

He started to try and get up, but she pinned him back down. "You don't mean that," she said, suddenly in earnest.

He met her gaze with an equal measure of sincerity. "No, I don't suppose I do." He moved his head so it was leaning into her lap. "Remember…we used to do this…and you'd sing…"

"Yes, and you'd fall asleep on me," she huffed. "It was very rude."

"Aww, won't you sing song for me? For days gone by?"

"Your acting like a baby!" she chided him.

He blinked, innocently. "Oh, please…just a little song?"

She exhaled, but finally relented, and started to sing about a lord of the magic seal-people who came to shore to woo the fisher's daughter and make her lady of his ocean hall…until Marian saw Robin's eyes close.

She tilted her head to one side. "Are you asleep again?"

"Yes," he lied, eyes still closed.

"Oh, you…" She swallowed, considering something outrageous to say, than thinking better of it, and rather impulsively throwing her arms around his neck and curled up alongside him in the leaves. "Miss me, Robin?" she murmured in his ear.

He turned his face, close enough to her that their eyelashes brushed each other. "What do you think?"

"I think you're a rogue, an absolute rogue…"

Before she could say more, he pulled her tight against him, and their mouths met. They'd done this so many times in the forest, sneaking away from the others in the twilight, in the springtime of their youth when everything seemed so new and warm and alive. Now they were older, more experienced in the ways of the world, but it still felt…warm and alive.

They cuddled against each other like that for a little while, then she heard his heart start racing under his shirt, and he cleared his throat. "Free with your affections, aren't you?" he twitted, starting to push her off and sit up.

"Why, Robin of Locksley!" she exclaimed. "You're blushing as red as an autumn apple! It's adorable!"

"We've, eh, not had much female company around these parts…"

"And I set you aflame?"

"Why you naughty little daughter of Eve, I think you're altogether enjoying this," he pretended to scold her, but was obviously enjoying it too.

"You and your honor code!" she cliqued her tongue.

"Eh, careful now," he added with a wink. "Being out here so long, beyond the law, I might have a streak of Herne the Hunter in me after all…"

She squeaked as he smacked her lightly on the rump. "Oh, you naughty thing, you!"

He grinned. "Come on, get me up already!" he coaxed, and she helped pull him to his feet.

They wandered for a little while, hands still entwined, not saying anything, just drinking in each other's company as they weaved between the trees, listening to the breeze whispering secrets in the last of the autumn leaves. "Did you think of me, when you felt the wind walking like it is today, Robin?" she asked.

He smiled, nodded. "You're one with it, Marian."

"I spoke to it all the time, when they wouldn't let me write you," she told him. "I told it to tell you all the secrets I couldn't tell anyone else. I knew it loved to blow through the forest, and you were always there."

"I figured that…they kept your time fully employed." He turned to her. "So…what's it like being the sheriff's lady?"

He fast realized that was the wrong choice of words, as Marian vengefully yanked at his ear. "I am NOT his lady!" she shouted. "How DARE you…!"

"Och…alright, already…" he grimaced, thought he was really beaming inside. "It's just that…well…rumors have their way of traveling. And it was said you two were almost inseparable as a pair together in London…"

"And since when do you take rumors on their word?" she challenged. "And if you did, why risk so much the tournament for…?"

"A golden arrow?" he filled in cheekily. "Gold is an outlaw's best friend, you know."

She eyed him dangerously.

"Not…that there weren't other fringe benefits," he added with a grin. "Which, tragically, I was somewhat detained from collecting, but…thankfully managed to make up for…"

"You mean because the sheriff's men nearly riddled you with crossbow bolts, save for the fact that I was seated next to him on the dais, and managed to stall his command by spilling that wine all over his finest new doublet to give you a head start?"

"Let's just say…I had to dash. Things come up in a busy life, and all." He raised an eyebrow. "And has the noble sheriff been keeping you busy these days too?"

"Have you ever heard of the lesser of two evils?" she sighed. "Had you been out in London, you'd understand…the place crawls with insects in knightly attire."

"And he baled you out?"

"He kept an eye on me, yes," she replied. "And I'll admit, he was…safer for me to be with. Whatever sorry excuse of a man he is, he's not the type to try and push a lady into a side room to debauch her. Besides…my father wanted me to hold out for the best. The more time I spent with Cavendish, further down on his list, the more unlikely it was for me to make a match. And the more likely…for me to get home…"

"I'm sorry for your father's death," Robin said quietly. "It must have been a shock for you…"

"Not half as much of a shock as yours," she ground out, guilt tingeing her tone. "Being made to watch his hall burn was as good as killing him with the sword. It stopped his heart cold. I might have cause to mourn my father, but you have none! He did nothing to help yours, in his hour of greatest need. And he sent me away to…"

She turned to make eye contact, her hands bunched into fists in suppressed anger. "When I found out…what happened…what they did to you…to your father, and your home…I could have taken up a crossbow, and fired at the whole lot of them, so hot was my blood in that hour!"

"I…thought upon doing something similar myself, in the heat of it," he admitted. "Herward the Wake tried it out in his day, you know? But then I thought…it would do no good. I'd just be giving them what they wanted. A Locksley murderer. And I…I don't know…"

"What don't you know?"

"I suppose…after a few weeks of wanting their blood, I started to pity the wretches. They've put blood on their hands they can never clean off, for all their lands and gear. It will weigh heavier by the year, especially on the one who wants me dead most dearly…your sheriff…"

"He's not my anything!"

"Your…chaperone, perhaps?" Robin offered.

She groaned. "He was just out for himself anyway…"

"But he kept wandering hands off you, and didn't try to touch you himself," he noted. "That's why…you still keep his company. You trust him in some way. You've…been bonded."

"Not as far as his dirty alliances and backroom policies I don't, damn him!" she swore.

"No, I never thought you did," he stated carefully. "But still...I've seen you with him, and know…"

"Know what?" she snapped.

"You neither love nor hate him, but have found him part of your life, whether you wanted to or not. And in such a way, you are with him, and in such a way, you could not do him willful injury. No, not even in the heat of your blood. It's another form of loyalty, Marian."

"You know nothing of it! Do you think I could ever waver in what I am to you, for anything or anyone?" Now she just sounded more hurt than anything else.

"Erm, I'm the one who took a lucky shot at a certain tourney for your kiss this past fortnight, remember?"

She smiled knowingly and nodded at this. "Still being a show-off for the ladies, eh?"

"For a lady," he clarified. "Always."

"Then why are you asking me…?"

"I just think…you may pity him, too." He paused. "He's always been weak, and now he's done a thing that will haunt him unto his death…he sees killing me as a way to undo that, but it will never work for him. And I thought…if blood will fail to blot out the stain of a crime, then my moving on the same notion, to blot out blood with more blood, would be…equally wrong. And I could fight better not losing myself, anyway…"

"He'll never get the chance to take you, Robin," she stated, stern as a stone. "Because you see…if I stay near enough to be the ear that hears, than I will also be his foil. He's a lonesome fool with me, often enough; I'll know what he's about. He'll never catch you, while I have my seat next to him, at banquet hall or May crowning."

He squinted. "Such a task would compromise you, surely…"

"It has always been my intent, should I return here," she told him. "It is in great part why I told him I'd forgive him for…what was done, after he begged it of me." She turned her eyes down. "And…as you say, blood upon blood would do no man good, including him. So I'm doing you both some service, no?"

"And what of…me, and the double tithes, and the noblemen's pouches made fat off it?"

"You know I despise such tosh as much as you!"

"So…what you're offering is…to be my…partner in crime, as it were?" He raised his eyebrow, questioningly.

"Partners, yes." Letting her inner tom-boy take over, she spit into her hand, and extended it to him. "But mind you, Young Locksley, I won't be taking orders from any man, and you'd better remember it, robber prince or no."

"Aww, but surely some hearty soul must set out to tame the shrew!"

"Shrews bite, you know!"

"Uh-huh," he responded numbly, biting his lip to contain his giddiness. "Just remember the old song, about the wife who wouldn't do her chores, and got a good thrashing in an old mare's skin?"

"And do you happen to remember what happened after that, clever one?"

"I'm sure you'll remind me…"

"The mare's soul and the woman's soul became one, and hearing the wind calling for her over the moors, said to that scum of a man, 'I won't lay down my pride!'"

"No wonder you love to be one with your horses so keenly…"

"And she got up on her fine hooves, tossed her mane, and cried, 'it's enough for me, enough for me, to live at large with liberty!'"

"And that's enough for you, my girl?" he beamed.

"Isn't it enough for you, Master of the Greenwood? And would you really keep company with any woman who wanted less for herself than you did?"

"Hell, no!" he laughed, taking her hand and then pulling her into his arms with a genial roughness, and snatching for another kiss. "But…sometimes it's a pleasure to be bound by someone else, you know…"

"You, bound?" she queried teasingly.

"Incorrigibly. What about you?"

"Well, I didn't come all the way out here to...to…feed the squirrels, did I?"

Again he burst into laughter. "So…you'll be princess of my hall, then? What do you say?"

"Like your Saxon shield-maidens?"

"Yes, exactly!" he concurred. "Like my mother…now, she was formidable to behold. Could walk into a room and stare down the hardest man with the sharpest weapon, and make him depart in peace by a mere glance. My father called her his first and last line of defense."

"Ah, so you need defending them?"

"Maybe…just a little…most likely from my yeomen, if one of my jokes falls flat…"

"I wish I would have met her properly. We should have been soul-sisters…"

"What, wanting to be asking her all about my secrets?"

"I know all your secrets," she huffed. "Well…most of them, I wager."

"Oh, the men won't like that," he cliqued his tongue. "They'll think you'll go tattling to the sheriff for sure."

Now she looked concerned. "Will they, Robin?"

"Eh, you'll win them over with time. Besides, Cousin Will and Old Jacob will vouche for you, even if they're convinced you've gotten me bewitched by some vile sorcery!"

"My goodness, how is dear Will?" she asked excitedly. "I've missed him!"

"Oh, still crazy," she replied. "Still chasing petticoats. Still wearing that silly scarlet sash."

"Oh, help," she exhaled. "Even in the forest?"

"I'm trying to break him of it, but he's refusing to be broken, little fool! Proud as a Christmas cardinal, that one!"

"And what about Old Jacob?" she pressed. "Is he well?"

"As fine a poacher as ever," he replied with a wink. "Still in strapping health, too…"

"Thanks to you," she added quietly. "Oh, yes, I heard that part too. You wouldn't let the forester touch him with his knife when he was caught with a buck, freshly killed. You kept him from being pilloried, even though…you knew how much it would cost you. So…that was the end of it. You passed beyond the law, and here you are."

Robin shrugged. "Jacob's always been a good, honest man, just trying to help others survive."

"An apt description for someone else I know…"

"So do you remember, when we were little, you and me and Will, we used to wander around here, thinking we were a band of crusaders or something?"

"Yes! You wouldn't let me at first, but I kept insisting, and I hit with mud, in a sling I made!"

"And little Will, he was our standard bearer…"

"That old dish rag from Jacob's wife!"

"She made the best gingerbread too…"

"Those dear souls had the hardest time keeping us out of trouble!"

"Ah, they handled it alright, aye?"

"Aye," she chortled, and smiled softly. "We'll always be trouble-makers, won't we?"

"Oh, yes," he agreed. "And what would the world do without trouble-makers like us?"

"Probably despair," she noted, suddenly solemn. She turned back to him again. "But we won't let that happen, will we?"

"Nah, we're midlanders, tenacious folk to the core," he chortled. "We scare away gloom by laughing in its face; our secret weapon, even when we can't see straight in front of us." He paused, squeezed her hand. "Besides, we're back in the pact! Double trouble to the end!"

"Oh, you mean our blood-pact, when I cut my finger on a blackberry thorn bush, and you cut it on the same thorn, and we promised to get married, back when I was thirteen?"

"All that I know, all that is home, blood of my blood, bone of my bone, hands bound, hearts bound, bound by the love of one to the other…" He recited from remember.

"You still remember!"

"You thought I forgot?"

"Absence can make one's memory grow dull…"

"And one's heart grow sharp, sharp as a thorn's point. It makes the meeting ever sweeter, like the berries from the bush."

She looked up as a laverock sang. "The birds still sing in the trees. You said you'd wait for me as long as they did."

"I did. And you?"

"Even if all the birds were gone now…I'd still be waiting for you, Robin."